Before the pandemic hit, Larry Barley was in what he called a “bad situation.”
The 63-year-old been kicked out of his last real home — a friend’s apartment, where he’d lived for about 15 years — and spent months on the streets in Paterson, “drinking two pints a day,” he said. A rehab center there helped him control his alcoholism, but after testing positive for the coronavirus last April, he’d been transferred into Hudson County’s homelessness support system.
It was, he said, “a blessing.”
“I feel like I’m a new person,” he said. “I don’t want to know the person I used to be.”
In Hudson County, the pandemic has had a silver lining for some homeless residents like Barley. Many now live in motel rooms instead of on the streets or in shelters. Hundreds have been signed up for Medicaid. Some have been able to recover documentation and paperwork that will allow them to apply for housing or other benefits.
“I think that the pandemic has taught us that housing is not the magic wand,” said Frank Mazza, the director of the Hudson County Department of Housing and Community Reintegration. “It is all these other services that (have) to be delivered while the person is in a stable living environment. And I think that’s going to be the lasting effect of the pandemic, as you look at how services are provided for this population.”
In March, just weeks after COVID-19 struck New Jersey, county officials worked with Alliance Community Healthcare and CarePoint Health to open a “step-down unit,” a CarePoint-owned building for homeless people recovering from COVID-19.
The idea was that residents could receive medical care in private rooms, instead of risking contaminating street encampments or the county’s regular homeless shelters. The unit gave residents access to an array of medical professionals: psychiatrists, endocrinologists, obstetricians. It also gave clients a fixed mailing address for IDs, birth certificates and social security cards.
“That home base has been the determining factor,” said Marilyn Cintron, the CEO of Alliance, who operates the facility.
For many, she said, it also provided a sense of stability. Some people living on the street or staying in shelters “feel like the system has kind of failed them. So there are trust issues there. Being able to see that the staff remains the same has helped.”
The county also rented out hundreds of rooms in motels along Tonnelle Avenue. At the peak of the pandemic, roughly 700 homeless people were staying in those motels, according to county officials; there are currently about 200. The county provides three meals a day, and Alliance staff have helped sign residents up for Medicaid and for appointments to get COVID-19 vaccines.
The total cost of these programs was not immediately clear. The price of a single motel room is set at $60 a night, and the county paid $4.7 million “on motel placements alone,” according to Mazza. Most of that is paid for with state Department of Human Services funding, he said.
Mazza and Cintron said those initiatives helped the county’s homeless population — many of whom are older, with underlying health conditions — avoid the contagion that officials feared.
“My sense is this population, if this virus were to get into our housing system, would have suffered greatly on the mortality side of things,” Mazza said.
After leaving Paterson, Barley ended up at the step-down unit. His symptoms were mild, he said, and while he was there, staff helped him acquire a debit card and a Medicaid card. After a few weeks there, Barley came to the Travelodge Motel on Tonnelle Avenue, where he has lived since.
“It’s been pleasant here,” he said. In the motel, he said, he is given three meals a day and the flexibility to come and go when he wants. Alliance staff have also helped him apply for affordable housing and have helped him make appointments to visit a dentist and get the vaccine, he said.
“It’s better than what it was,” he said.
Now, the question is: can it last?
The lease with CarePoint for the 169 Palisade step-down building, under which the county’s improvement authority paid $1 a month, is ending at the end of July. The county could have the option to renew the lease, Mazza said, but the terms of renewal are unclear.
“We were happy to offer this facility to the county during the height of the pandemic as it provided shelter to the less fortunate community members and Christ Hospital will continue to support local initiatives that benefit the community,” a CarePoint spokesman said in an email.
If that step-down unit closes, Cintron plans to open a “home base” for mail delivery and resources somewhere else. But with Hudson County’s real estate prices, she said, “it’s not all roses on that side.”
Alliance also pays for some staff member positions with federal stimulus funding. If the county doesn’t step in when that runs out, Cintron said, the organization may have to fundraise on its own.
It’s also unclear how long homeless residents will be able to stay in the motels. The question is not money — the state’s new budget includes emergency assistance funding that would cover motel stays into the future — but rather the will of the motel owners. As travel came to a near-total halt during the pandemic, owners were “eager” for the business, Mazza said. But now that travel restrictions have been lifted, some may prefer to focus on hosting visitors.
The owner of the Travelodge, where Barley is staying, could not be reached for comment.
If homeless people are kicked out of those motel rooms, Cintron said, it won’t doom the county’s support programs. “But it will add to that disappointment,” she said.
Anyone forced to leave motels will be able to transfer to a shelter or other short-term housing, Mazza said, but acknowledged that residents generally preferred staying in motels to being on the streets or in shelters.
But Barley didn’t seem concerned about his future. He is working with Alliance staff to find affordable housing, he said, and is waiting to hear back about locations where he is eligible.
“All of this stuff is just finally coming back together,” he said.